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Music Review

An expressive affair by Boston Symphony Chamber Players, guests

Boston Symphony Players with pianist Emanuel Ax at Jordan Hall
Boston Symphony Players with pianist Emanuel Ax at Jordan HallWinslow Townson

“Subjective” and “objective”: “miserable words,” Robert Schumann called them, having been critically bludgeoned with both terms. Musical conservatives used the former to tar Schumann’s experimental, aphoristic music, radicals the latter to dismiss Schumann’s later exercises in traditional forms and genres. But, Schumann insisted, such divisions are not so easily made, a judgment corroborated by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players at Jordan Hall on Sunday, in a concert matching Schumann with his most direct modern musical descendant, György Kurtág.

Guest pianist Emanuel Ax (on sojourn from this weekend’s BSO concerts) accompanied clarinetist William Hudgins in Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke” (Op. 73) and hornist James Sommerville in his Adagio and Allegro (Op. 70), both works turning Schumann’s compulsive melodicism to judiciously expressive ends. Hudgins and Sommerville were smooth, solid, leveraging (as Schumann does) their respective instruments’ aptitude for evoking distance, peripherally far or intensely close; Ax backed them with robust warmth.

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The Kurtág selections, while stylistically divergent, pinpointed the Hungarian composer’s trademarks: expressive fragmentation, distilled insistence. The Wind Quintet (Op. 2) was glitteringly angular, a modernistic miscellany. (Hudgins and Sommerville, along with flutist Elizabeth Rowe, oboist John Ferrillo, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda, gave a lucid, lyrical reading.) Kurtág’s “Scenes From a Novel” (Op. 19) was more idiosyncratic: 15 brief, bracing songs to Russian-language poems by Rimma Dalos, scored for soprano (Christine Brandes, singing with spring-steel sound and committed fervor), violin (Haldan Martinson), double bass (Edwin Barker), and an incisively jangling cimbalom (Nicholas Tolle).

But both the 1959 Quintet and the 1982 cycle re-alienate the routine. In “Rondo,” from Op. 19, Brandes repeatedly, increasingly frantically intoned the phrase “I said,” the words transformed into something disorientingly arresting. Kurtág’s achievement is similarly renovating the most basic musical ideas; hollow open strings, a sliding glissando, a coarse waltz, a scurrying scale — all were rendered expressively unfamiliar.

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Schumann pulled off the same trick. His Piano Quintet (Op. 44) runs a powerful current beneath its conventional surface, the contrasts prescribed by classical forms amplified by Schumann’s characteristic quick-change moods. The performance — Martinson and Ax joined by violinist Malcolm Lowe (whose birthday Ax marked with an appropriate, singalong encore), violist Steven Ansell, and cellist Jules Eskin — was both aristocratic and muscular, a prizefighter in formalwear; the sturdy, even ordinary ideas (the Scherzo is almost nothing but scales) took grand, uncanny flight. Both Schumann and Kurtág question how the objective strangeness of even the simplest musical trope could ever be subjectively considered commonplace.


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.